In 1970, the movie industry was in big trouble. The moguls who built the industry and guided it through its golden era of the 1930s through the 1950s were dying off; older audiences were feeling alienated by the industry’s current product, and the industry’s fortunes suffered dramatically. There was a group of young Turks who were working their way through the industry, but it would be a few years before they fully established themselves — and their most lasting contribution, via George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, would be to return Hollywood to its tradition of big budget family friendly entertainment, ironically enough.
But in the late ‘60s, outside the walls of the studio, the country was in turmoil. LBJ had declined a second term, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were dead. Vietnam was in the headlines constantly — and frequently being misreported.
Add to it all the industry’s schizophrenia regarding Richard Nixon — the old guard generally liked him; the young Turks hated him with the white hot force of a thousand exploding suns — and you had an industry that was deeply confused.
We remember films from that period such as hippie favorite Easy Rider, and 20th Century Fox’s bipolar trilogy of war films — Patton, Tora, Tora, Tora, and Robert Altman’s countercultural anti-Vietnam parable M*A*S*H — but most of Hollywood’s product from 1970 dated very quickly.
Which is why I felt more than a little like the crew of the “Satellite of Love” on Mystery Science Theater 3000 this past weekend, as I watched a pair of cinematic bombs from 1970 that summed up the year perfectly. These were two films that I had read about years ago in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, but never caught on the late show, or purchased on laser disc in the late 1980s, during my obsessive NYU film days, so I felt obligated to see what I had missed. Don’t everyone thank me for taking one — actually two — for the team, all at once.
Workin’ in a Coalmine
My first trip back to 1970 was via the Molly Maguires, which had recently gone up on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, and directed by Martin Ritt, the film was about the group of Luddite-ish 1870s-era coal miners, who fought back against the poor working conditions and low wages of their employers by sabotaging equipment and blowing up mines and trains.
Paramount sunk ten million dollars into the film — which was a very big budget for the era; about equal to the final bill Stanley Kubrick handed MGM for his epic 2001 two years earlier. Given the production values and stars, Paramount was convinced they were about to mine box office gold. Connery was just coming off his initial retirement from the James Bond series, and Harris from 1967’s smash Camelot. The film’s director, Martin Ritt, had overcome ’50s-era blacklisting to score a big hit in 1965 with another British superstar, Richard Burton, in another morally ambiguous film, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
But the first half of the Molly Maguires is largely set in a coal mine in 1870s Pennsylvania, and the oppressive blackness of the mine creates a remarkably claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s both a testament to the film’s production designer and its cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, that the filmmakers were able to create such a realistic atmosphere. Particularly given that while the exteriors were filmed in the coal mining town of Eckley, Pennsylvania, the subterranean coal was filmed on a set in Hollywood, both for lighting and particularly for safety reasons. Obviously, “CONNERY DIES IN MINE COLLAPSE WHILE SHOOTING PARAMOUNT PRODUCTION” was not a headline the studio wanted to see on the front page of Daily Variety that year.
The Molly Maguires earned back only about two million dollars of its budget at the box office. According to the IMDB, “Director Martin Ritt blamed the film’s massive critical and commercial failure for permanently damaging his career.” If a film directed by a formerly blacklisted director (and written by a formerly blacklisted screenwriter) bombs, shouldn’t a Marxist-influenced leftwing director consider that a success?
I keed, I keed! (Ritt would have a modest hit a decade later with Norma Rae, telling another story about strikes and unionization, though this time with cute and perky Sally Field in the role of labor organizer, at the peak of her career.)
And actually, The Molly Maguires improves as it goes along; the second half of the film largely escapes its coal mine set, and the film begins to open up. The local scenery of Pennsylvania, Wong’s photography, and the performances by Connery, Harris, and Samantha Eggar as Harris’ love interest seem to launch the film into a much more enjoyable second gear. But by then, audiences were likely worn out from the oppressiveness that came before. And whom do you root for? Connery and his gang destroy company property and kill Pinkerton agents. Harris is a Pinkerton agent, undercover with Connery’s boys to spy on them.
19th Century Subterranean Weatherman Blues
To further understand why The Molly Maguires bombed, consider the era in which the film was released: The headlines of the sixties were filled with reports of massive urban riots in cities such as Detroit, Newark, and Watts. 1968 was another year American spent in Hell, inasmuch as how the Tet Offensive was reported by the news media, along with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the leftwing protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention. And for the left, the election of Richard Nixon was the final indignity. The idea of radical saboteurs blowing up businesses would have generated strong feelings on both sides of the aisle in 1970. (Of course, businesses, including both Hollywood and elsewhere, were blowing themselves up as well during that chaotic period.)
The news during the summer of 1969, while The Molly Maguires was in production, was dominated by several bipolar events in short succession: the mud of Woodstock, the triumph of the moon landing, and Teddy Kennedy’s splashdown into Chappaquiddick. Perhaps hitting closest to home for the film industry, Charles Manson’s murderous spree shook Hollywood to its core.
A few months later, the radical leftist group the Weathermen, including later Obama colleague Bill Ayers, participated in the 1969 “Day of Rage” riots in Chicago, during which, as Discover the Networks notes:
Nearly 300 members of the organization engaged in vandalism, arson, and vicious attacks against police and civilians alike. Their immediate objective was to spread their anti-war, anti-American message. Their long-term goal, however, was to cause the collapse of the United States and to create, in its stead, a new communist society over which they themselves would rule.
In the wake of The Molly Maguires’ release into theaters, the Black Panthers, who had promoted urban violence, dropped by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s Park Ave. duplex for a fundraiser, and the Weathermen “participated in the bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970,” as Ayers himself later wrote in his memoirs.
Violence, was, to say the least, in the air during the production and release of The Molly Maguires, making the subtext for the film immediately apparent, and likely polarizing audiences. The Silent Majority who condemned such actions would have reason to actively boycott a film that they sensed promoted it. The urban radical left probably thought mainstream Hollywood product like The Molly Maguires didn’t go anywhere near far enough in its radicalism to bother seeing it either.
But beyond the subtext of the film, The Molly Maguires at least boasts solid and believable performances from its stars, and a taut script that gradually ramps tension up as the film goes on, and excellent production design that believably recreates life in a 19th century hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal mining town. From that perspective, socialism aside, it’s a well-made piece of craftsmanship in the last days of old Hollywood — one that was busy blowing itself up, as Peter Biskind wrote in his seminal history of that era in Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
The second film from 1970 I watched the following night was a very different experience, indeed.
R.P.M.: The Great Society Implodes
Columbia Pictures reluctantly distributed Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969; when the studio struck box office paydirt, they naturally convinced themselves that there was plenty more money to be made tapping the “youth market,” as it was called back then.
The following year, Columbia released Stanley Kramer’s notorious R.P.M. (Short for “Revolutions Per Minute,” of course. Get it? Get it?!) Seen immediately after The Molly Maguires, a thankless kamikaze task that I unfortunately put myself through, R.P.M. is a campy mess. It was another film I had read a fair amount about, but had never seen; like The Molly Maguires, I can’t ever remember it playing on the late show on Philadelphia-area TV when I was a kid. However, when it aired on TCM last week, I felt like I had to TiVo it and witness its horrors for myself.
The L.A. Times recently dubbed the late Stanley Kramer “Hollywood’s moral compass.” And they’re right, in the sense that if Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt ever got together to create a son who became a film director, he would have produced the midcentury middlebrow liberal films of Kramer, such as The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Ship of Fools. His 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was the last gasp for Kramer’s brand of earnest midcentury liberalism, if only because by then, the New Left was busy devouring the milquetoast New Deal/Great Society-era Left. The following year, like much of old Hollywood in the late 1960s, Kramer must have watched the 1968 Democratic Convention, and felt like a dinosaur.
Handed a script full of arch-liberal dialogue in 1969 by Erich Segal, whose other works included 1968’s Yellow Submarine and a much more successful campus-based film, Love Story, Kramer set about attempting to dramatize college unrest at the end of the 1960s. Its socialist subtext aside, while Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Martin Ritt had nothing to be embarrassed about including scenes from the Molly Maguires on their respective highlight reels, Kramer disowned R.P.M.; according to the IMDB, the director “always referred to this film in interviews as his least favorite and least successful of the films he has directed.
And I can’t say I blame him; R.P.M. stars Gary Lockwood, the guest star of the second Star Trek pilot, and three years later, an outer space forceps abortion at the mechanical hands of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In R.P.M., Lockwood, then 33 years old, is miscast as a self-proclaimed Marxist student insurrectionist who has taken over the administration building at a fictional Ivy League school. His partner in crime is another actor who would become associated with science fiction, Paul Winfield, who a decade later would command the ill-fated USS Reliant in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and a few years after that, in a mammoth makeup job, would be shouting “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!” to Patrick Stewart in a memorable Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.
“Me and My Hiroshima Generation, We Failed”
Communication difficulties were at the core of R.P.M. as well — only in 1970, they went by the then-au courant phrase, “The Generation Gap.” The man at the other end of that particular chasm was played by the great Anthony Quinn, as Professor F.W.J. “Paco” Perez, the ultimate bleeding heart middle-aged liberal intellectual, and the stand-in for Kramer in the picture.
Once the film gets going, the striking students present the college board of trustees a list of demands, along with three choices for new university president: Che Guevara (who of course, had been killed in 1967), Eldridge Cleaver (interesting choice; he would go on to declare himself a conservative Republican by the end of the 1970s), and “Paco” Perez, Quinn’s fictitious character.
Watching R.P.M. is a reminder that other than Barry Goldwater’s heroic run in 1964 against daisy-bombing LBJ and Godwinizing CBS, Conservatism was relegated to the sidelines during the 1960s; which was almost exclusively a blue-on-blue internecine struggle between the old and new left. The racialist south, personified by Democratic National Committeeman Bull Connor, helped put FDR, JFK, and LBJ over the top, and gave broad support to Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and ‘56. After blue-on-blue riots and assassinations nearly tore the country apart in 1967 and ’68, no wonder Richard Nixon, who spent most of the 1960s keeping his powder dry and modernizing his image, seemed so attractive to voters whose patience was exhausted by the mid-1960s antics of the left, alternately juvenile and bloody, along with the news media’s recent move further to the left.
But for those New Deal-era true believers in the Democratic Party, its absorption by the New Left made them feel equally exhausted and confused. Perhaps the saddest moment in R.P.M. occurs near the end, when Anthony Quinn tells Lockwood, “All right, look, me and my Hiroshima generation, we failed. We screwed it up. At least for Christ’s sake, learn from us.”
Just as a reminder, Stanley Kramer had helmed proud, confident Judgment at Nuremberg only nine years before R.P.M., but by 1970, it must have seemed like a lifetime ago. But then, as Pat Moynihan said in 1973, “Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade.”
My Mind is Going, Dave. I Can Feel It
When the protesting students’ demands to effectively run the university aren’t met by the campus administrators, the students threaten to smash the school’s two million dollar mainframe computer, setting up a not-so-dramatic confrontation between Lockwood and Quinn in front of a primitive first-generation mainframe. At last, Gary Lockwood has his revenge over HAL! Or at least one of HAL’s primitive grandfathers; your iPhone has infinitely more computing power than the giant metal hulking mainframe in the background of this scene.
And we all have more cognitive ability than the two stars in that scene, trapped by a script that left me cheering on the cops once they finally stormed the administration building afterward. So, other than Kramer having two hours of movie time he needed to kill, why wasn’t the college kabuki ended sooner? If I was headmaster of that school, I would have looked at those students the way that Reagan did the striking Air Traffic Controllers in 1981, or the way that long-suffering Dean Wormer finally told the Delta House that they were expelled, shouting, “I want you off this campus at nine o’clock Monday morning, and I’ve contacted your local draft boards and told them that you were all, all eligible for military service!”
But such reasoning was anathema to feckless college regents in the late 1960s; as Diana West noted in her 2007 book, The Death of the Grown-Up:
Indeed, at the University of Chicago, which may be the one campus where administrators acted swiftly to expel students who had occupied a building, “parents took out newspaper advertisements protesting the draconian punishment visited upon their darlings, thus providing a clue to what had gone wrong with their children.”
After Quinn and Lockwood return to neutral corners, Quinn reluctantly signals the police massing outside the administration building in full riot gear, that they can move in to remove the students. Naturally, Winfield looks down upon the policemen and says to Lockwood, “Well man, the Blue Meanies are out there,” a self-indulgent call-out from Segal to his earlier, successful Yellow Submarine.
The police then storm the building in the film’s climax, accompanied on the soundtrack by a surprisingly funky drum and percussion solo that’s vaguely reminiscent of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” drum solo at Woodstock.
The Malaise Speech: The First Draft
After the tear gas clears, parents pick up their kids on bail. Paco meets with the school regents, to sign the student bail forms and other post-riot paperwork. One university regent (played a young Donald Moffat, who would go on to play a Data-like android a few years later in the craptacular Logan’s Run TV series, and then Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate ‘60s authority figure, in the film version of The Right Stuff) tells him, “Look, it was rebellion. Out and out rebellion. What the hell could you have done?
“Oh, I could have stayed in there with them.”
“And let them break the computer?”, Moffat’s character replies.
“To help them get what they want,” Paco mischievously smiles.
“What the hell do they want?”, asks another regent.
“Oh, they…they want to keep us awake at night,” replies Paco.
“What’s that supposed to mean,” asks Moffat’s character.
“If we can sleep at night with what is happening, then we ACCEPT what is happening! They won’t,” Paco tells him, while pointing towards the door, and the students being arraigned outside.
William F. Buckley couldn’t have tossed nearly a half century of liberalism and progress down the ash heap of history any better himself; that these were self-hating liberals who were wallowing in the failure of the Great Society made it all the more fascinating. You can hear the first draft of Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech in Quinn’s cri de Coeur, along with Eric Voegelin and Buckley’s admonishment to avoid immanentizing the eschaton.
On his way out of the main college hall, Quinn passes by Lockwood’s campus agitator character and tells him, “Stay loose, kid,” just to remind him that he used to be a brain-dead young hipster himself.
Finally, to billy club the audience over the head with irony, a male choir singing a traditional collegiate song plays underneath the next shot, as Paco is booed and heckled by hundreds of college kids as he makes his way onto the campus grounds. Fade out, on a truly horrific folk song about the generation gap by Melanie.
While Diana West wrote Death of the Grownup in 2007, as early as the end of the 1960s, adults were in increasingly short supply. If you want to see an unintentional exercise in camp about young men who think they know it all, and postwar men who have drained all wisdom, pride, and common sense from their brains, R.P.M. is the film for you. But personally, I’m done with 1970 for a very long time, after a weekend in which four hours felt like an entire year, and one of the worst in American history, to boot.